NO LIMITSby Khalid Mohamed May 13 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 34 secs
Khalid Mohamed time-travels back to an interview with the ace actor Kamal Haasan on what he knows… and does best in southern films as well as his tryst with Bollywood cinema.
Truly my jaw had dropped on watching him, knocking out super sinuous and emotionally dense performances in brisk succession in Nayakan, Sagara Sangamam, Appu Raja, Thevar Magan, Pushpak, Sadma, Saagar, Chachi 420, produced by his own film company, and to a point in the excessively conventional dance-centric Sanam Teri Kasam.
I became a major fan boy instantaneously. And one of the high points of my life and career has been interviewing the Chennai-anchored actor. He could have been in many more Hindi language films if he had only been welcomed by wider open arms by the Bollywood satraps. Take for instance Ghatak, for which he had been firmed up by Rajkumar Santoshi. Next, he was suddenly replaced by Sunny Deol, the director’s excuse being that his star of Ghayal was way more saleable in the B-town’s movie market.
Kamal Haasan could have been an A-lister in the Hindi film industry. But I guess, the mainstream matrix has always been beyond any kind of deductive logic.
Be that as it may, to date I have cherished our confabulations, mostly conducted in his modestly-appointed home-cum-office in Chennai. As journo-star equations go, I have lost touch with him for years. Here’s a go-back, then, to excerpts from one of my interviews, circa 1996, with Kamalji (even his then wife Sarika would call him that and he’d call her Sarikaji), which may offer you a glimpse of the actor, whose loss has been that of Bollywood’s entirely.
Lately you were in the U.S. to attend a screenwriting workshop. Why?
It was meant to be a three-week intensive workshop with writers under the supervision of John Truby in Hollywood. But it didn’t quite work out that way, it was briefer. It was good working with him and his assistants. Truby would call himself a coach, a script doctor, one of his assistants did Sleepless in Seattle.
I got hands-on experience in the screenplay system of Hollywood as well as budgeting and scheduling. My brother, Chandrahasan was with me. We thought we should learn the basics instead of the high-tech stuff. Some day, I’d like to learn about acting too, maybe by enrolling in the Lee Strasberg Actors’ Studio in New York.
After so many years, why do you have to still learn the acting process?
I have become rusty and complacent. I started anticipating applause instead of being surprised by it. I haven’t been doing my job to the best of my capabilities. Today Nayakan seems so far behind, I can’t rest on those laurels. When I look back at the Nayakan performance, it seems to have so many flaws. I could have been more controlled. I’m speaking about what I could have done and not the director (Mani Rathnam) who pushed me far beyond the limits I had already set for myself.
Which scenes could you improve upon in Nayakan?
Oh, so many. Like the scene where Nayakan gets angry with his gang’s men… or when he starts fumbling on hearing about his son’s death. The way he cries for his son still holds though. But I am sure that all of us, Mani, Ilaiyaraja and myself, could do better today.
Why are you being so self-critical?
I’ve always been self-critical. Quite often, I’d feel that my make-up was terrible. I was like a schoolboy trying to pass off as a father. With Indian, I think I’ve succeeded to a large extent in improving my make-up. Earlier, I’d merely exude the confidence of a successful actor who could get away with impersonation. With Indian, I feel I’ve hit the mark without making it obvious that the old man is being directed - you know that move-to-the-left-move-to-the-right-sort of thing. This performance was more felt than technically correct.
The film Indian was quite politically critical. Did you have to face any obstacles?
Well, for starters when we were shooting a song with Urmila Matondkar, the unions in Chennai said that we couldn’t bring in the chorus line dancers from Mumbai. We had to convince them we weren’t using them as dancers but as models since the situation was that of a fashion show.
According to you, why did Indian (dubbed and released in Hindi as Hindustani) click majorly?
Mainly because it was a pedestrian fantasy. MGR’s films would be another kind of fantasy, asserting that a princess could fall in love with a rickshaw-puller. Indian was another kind of fantasy, that we would like to get even with the corrupt bureaucracy.
Of late, you’ve been more concerned about producing films than about acting, right?
I’m concerned about both. Back in 1977, I had acted in as many as 18 movies in a single year. I can’t possibly have the same energy, even if I have it, I’d like to do something more with the energy. Film production is better than getting into mischief. After all, the mind can be a monkey.
What kind of mischief?
Like gambling to while away the time.
Have you ever been tempted to gamble?
No, never with cards or at a casino. But film production is a gamble, it’s dicey. More than being clever, it’s about being lucky. Like we have been with Magalir Mattum, Sati Lilavati, Thevar Magan, Appu Raja or even with Pushpak in which I was a one-third partner. They seemed risky, we had our doubts. Then I’d tell myself that even the great masters weren’t sure about the fate of their films.
Wouldn’t you like to act again in Hindi films?
Hindustani could be defined as a return. Perhaps after this, it’ll be commercially viable for me to return and stay. I’ll stop being a tourist in Mumbai.
I was in London for a Hindi film project, to gauge its cost-effectiveness and shoot it there as a bilingual in Tamil and Hindi. I hope to remake Guna in Hindi some day. I know what went wrong with Guna. The climax for one, needed a stronger sense of purpose. If properly redone, it could easily become a winner in Hindi.
Are you still excited about the movies? Or are there days when you ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”
I think of hell only when I have to do a lousy film at this stage of my career. If I find at least one redeeming factor in a project, then I break my back for it. Yeah I do still get charged. But like it or not, commercial success is one of the main motivating factors. Many of our filmmakers pretend they’re fearless but deep down inside, the attempt is to be commercial.
What does the word “commerical” mean to you?
It means what people want to see. There are no specific rules though. Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah and Hum Aapke Hain..Koun! are all extremely commercial in different ways. So is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which did defy some conventions laid down by the present-day pundits.
Whether you have a thriller background, a family conflict, young romance, plenty of gore or loads of shaadi scenes, there are no irreversible dos and don’ts. The idea is to be different and entertaining. That’s why people don’t seem too keen on the regular circus routines, they want something more than the trapeze, clowns, cannon ball and the lions.
Most of our movies are as predictable as the circus. There should be a change or at least a rearrangement of gags in such a way that one can bring in more rubber girls… or a Houdini, which we did in Appu Raja..
Or there can be an element of seriousness, like a moment of silence with only the drums rolling on the soundtrack in Thevar Magan. Essentially, the audience wants you to ride a mobike on a high-wire. If you don’t fall, you’ll be applauded.
Have you ever fallen as an actor?
Oh, so many times. An actor is the only factor which makes the cookie crumble, so to speak. He is still accountable for his failures. He may be doing the same role for the 21st time but he has to do it with some novelty.
As an actor, I’m very ashamed of doing gross injustice to Sanjeev Kumar’s performance in Koshish. I shouldn’t have gone anywhere near its remake, Uyarndhavargal. I didn’t play an old man, I was just 21 or 22. I fudged it up.
My guru in this line, Ananthu, would give me clear-cut, truthful criticism. He would tell me when I’ve been too flamboyant and played to the gallery. And I think this was a problem with my performance in Ek Duuje Ke Liye. I could have catered to the gallery differently. It wasn’t a great performance at all. I was far too preoccupied, wearing high heels to look taller. I would tuck in my shirt properly so it wouldn’t look creased. I wanted to look as handsome as Dharmendra and as tall as Amitabh Bachchan. Whatever honesty in the performance was because of the director… the way I was handled by Mr. K Balachander.
As a child actor, did you ever think about what you were being made to do?
Think! Not at all. But steadily I saw that the other child actors knew exactly what they were up to. Like Sarikaji, I’d be so envious of her. If I’d met her in a dark alley when she was a kid, I would have strangled her. I’d also feel very jealous of Junior Mehmood, he was so much at ease.
At the studios my brother Chandrahasan would keep telling me that the other child artists were so brilliant. I was just a cute kid who reached the masses because of the author-backed dialogue I was given. It was only my subsequent training in theatre under T.K. Shanmugham that I became aware about acting. Then there was my training in Bharatanatyam, which was like going from cinema into kabuki.
How did classical dance mold you?
It was a reverse process, going from cinema to dance. It gave me a certain flexibility to my body. It made me forget the two pieces of meat, my hands, hanging from the sides of my body. Otherwise, actors tend to find a job for their hands, like adjusting one’s shirt, fiddling with the buttons or holding on to a pillar, table or chair. Dance informed me of keeping my hands unnaturally natural.
Dance is one the earliest forms of communication with an audience - you have to be graphic, underlining every gesture and giving examples to illustrate every point. When I became a film dance assistant, I would make others speak with their hands but more subtly than on stage. That apprenticeship was very crucial in understanding the difference between a stage and a screen performance. Then I was promoted to the post of an assistant director without any qualifications. From G.Thangappan, I learnt camera angles and trick shots. That’s where I saw how double roles could be executed.
I would watch Raveekant Nagaich who could achieve wonderful special effects with just a piece of wire and a rubber band. I’d gape at (cinematographer) Marcus Bartley. In the evenings, I’d sit in conversations about cameras and lenses. I found another mentor in R.C. Shakthi who made me write a script. He told me not to worry about spelling mistakes because they wouldn’t show up on the screen.
When did you first become conscious about the skills required by an actor?
Shakthi said I should act. I didn’t want to. I thought of actors as puppets. I wanted to pull the strings instead. But no actor wanted to be in the Midnight Cowboy-type of script I’d written. The male protagonist dies of venereal disease in the end. Shakthi said, “Look, you’re 19 years old, you’ve written yourself into the damn script, so you had better do it.” So, I was a reluctant actor.
After that, Mr. K. Balachander taught me how to act all over again. He made me stand on my feet and gave me style. So whenever I’m asked if he discovered me, I reply, “No, he invented me.” I didn’t know I was capable of acting.
Tell me, why didn’t you act in the Hindi remakes of 16 Vayathinile (Solwa Saawan) and Sigappu Rojakkal (Red Rose)?
Because I was committed to do my first Hindi film with Mr. Balachander. Bharatiraaja was quite upset that I didn’t do those films.
How do you look back on your days in Hindi cinema?
I was euphoric when my face on the posters of Ek Duuje Ke Liye was plastered all over the walls of North India. For a while, I even lost my sense of reality. Raj Kapoor had leaned out of his seat while watching a special screening of the film to say, “You naughty boy!” There was that song in the elevator, where I do a take-off on Satyam Shivam Sundaram, tugging at the sides of my shirt to remind audiences of Zeenat Aman’s outfit in his film. Raj Kapoor had laughed uproariously, which was too much for a Chennai actor who had idolised him. I was in a trance.
The best time I spent in Hindi cinema was during the shooting of Saagar. Everyone on the sets would lavish praise, I OD’d on the popularity. I don’t remember my other Hindi films too distinctly. With Saagar, I found a terrific friend in Ramesh Sippy who in those days used to be an overspending technocrat.
Didn’t the film’s climax go awry?
We shot three different climaxes in which I died three different kinds of deaths. In sum, Saagar was tremendously fun. I’ve never played cricket on the sets of any other film. The cameraman would howl and grumble to make us return before the camera.
Did you use a Chaplinesque style consciously in Saagar?
Yes, I’d discovered the greatness of Chaplin. I was watching every possible Chaplin film, including his early shorts. He hit me like a thunderbolt. So in my case, the Saagar performance was a personal tribute to the genius.
Did you feel like an outsider in the Hindi film world?
No, no, that was only for the first few days. I’d picked up the Hindi language after Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Yes, but to be honest I did feel like a foreigner there. I had this patronising, put-on arrogance - conveying ‘look here, I’m living with Hindi cinema’. Today, I have a clearer view of the system though. And because of Sarikaji, now my Hindi is pretty good.
Mumbai is not an ideal place to make films unless you’re shooting specifically on the locations of the city. It’s as difficult as shooting in Los Angeles without the updated facilities and speedy transport. I wouldn’t even blame the stars for their late arrival. Whenever I’m in Mumbai, I can’t keep more than two appointments. It takes much more time here to travel from one spot to another. Yet I’m attracted to Mumbai, it’s a happening city. It’s genuinely the Gateway to India.
With time have you revised your definition of acting?
I revise my defintion of acting every month. There should be no limits. According to me acting is a means of communicating a story. Acting means pretending to be him, her or it. Acting is vaguely related to a circus or magic. If there is too much concentration on technique, you can end up looking like one of those magicians who’re such terrible actors. They ham, their attention is totally on their sleight of hand.
I’ve learnt a lot about voice modulation by practising ventriloquism. Once I performed as a ventriloquist at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai and brought the house down. This was in preparation of the role for a ventriloquist I played in Avargal.
Often, don’t you tend to concentrate on your physical appearance?
An actor has to concentrate on the external appearance as well as the soul of the character he’s enacting. The only way to go about this is by carrying a strong script, an author-backed role, as your personal baggage. If an actor disagrees with something, it’s best to sort it out with the director before the film gets going. If an actor realises that it’s a no-go, that there is complete disagreement, then it’s best to keep away instead of doing the project half-heartedly.
Would you say that some of our actors, including yourself, are of an international calibre.
No, no way. At least speaking for myself I can say that I’m not of international calibre. All of us are bogged down. Abroad, they have so many technical devices to improve an actor’s performance. As long as our mainstream cinema remains operatic, as long as singing and dancing are mandatory, we will be trying to cope with a chopped-up salad kind of a cinema… or a pot-pourri.
I refused to sing in Sigappu Rojakkal, insisting that a psychopath is hardly likely to sing and dance. So they made the heroine go through a dream sequence in which she sees me singing. At least, we didn’t lip-sync to the song. Really, songs are a nuisance. Directors should be sensible enough to help an actor out of this dilemma, unless of course they’re making a full-fledged musical like Sagara Sangamam.
Could you name the Indian actors you have held in high regard?
Sivaji Ganesan, Motilal, Dilip Kumar - I became aware of his greatness on seeing Gunga Jumna, Ashok Kumar, Rishi Kapoor – he was so good-looking that he seemed to be made for the camera, Pankaj Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah… if I didn’t mention him it would be out of sheer jealousy. And K.Balachander who has never acted. I’ve been trying to make him act but he insists that his acting talent should remain a secret.
I’m not too good at gauging female actors, maybe because I get too carried away by the opposite gender… but let me try. Savitri, Laxmi, Vanishree, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Urvashi, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit who’s capable of performing excellently but has been mainly restricted to songs and dances.
And the Indian films you cherish?
Mughal-e-Azam, an all-time favourite, Pather Panchali, Kaagaz ke Phool, Padosan, Ankur and Bhumika, which changed my way of looking at our films, Achanak, which was almost a forerunner of Rambo, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Sholay - though I must confess I like the filmmaker more than the film, Andha Naal, Rangoon Radha, Sudigundalu, Chandralekha and at least 20 to 30 films of Sivaji Ganesan.